Keeping up with UP | Has NOTA been able to strike the right note?
None of the Above (NOTA) was introduced to cleanse the political system in 2013. Its sparse use in 10 years has thrown up questions about its efficacy
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was perhaps the first political party to advise its voters to opt for NOTA (None of the Above) in the Ghosi bypolls held earlier this month.
BSP state president Vishwanath Pal explained the party’s unconventional decision: “As we were not contesting the polls, we had advised the voters to stay away from the polling booth or use the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option.” BSP Mau district president Raj Vijay claimed they informed the party workers about the decision of the party leadership. “The BSP is out of the election, we will not exercise our franchise rights,” he said.
BSP chief Mayawati knew that in her party’s absence, both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) would attempt to lure 60,000 Dalit votes and tilt the scales in their favour.
Further, she had no love lost for the main players in the electoral game — BJP ally and Suheldev Bahujan Samaj Party (SBSP) president Om Prakash Rajbhar and BJP nominee Dara Singh Chauhan. Both were inducted into politics by her mentor Kanshi Ram. Her sour relations with the SP are known to all and sundry. The party had fielded Sudhakar Singh, a Rajput with an eye on Yadav, Muslim and Dalit votes.
Thus, in their quest to stay neutral or oppose both the BJP and the SP, the party leadership gave a call to her workers to stay away or press NOTA.
Incidentally, Mayawati is famous for her skills in transferring her votes to the party of her choice in case of an alliance and is also well-equipped to disseminate her message. A party worker in Rajasthan had told me sometime in 2008 that “Behenji’s (Mayawati’s) messages flash faster than a telegram.” They have a well-oiled communication network.
Despite poll fatigue in the constituency that saw seven elections in a decade — three assembly, two Lok Sabha and two assembly bypolls — BSP supporters did not adhere to their leader’s call. Only 1,725 preferred NOTA as against 1,749 in the 2019 bypolls, 1,585 in the 2017 and 1,249 in the 2022 assembly elections.
Political analyst Badri Narayan Tiwari said, “Most of the marginal communities are still ignorant about the NOTA option. That’s why they did not press the button.”
By the looks of it, Mayawati’s experiment failed. Generally, it is observed that NOTA as an option is used by educated people in urban areas. Otherwise, people prefer to cast their vote, either for the candidate or the party.
The conclusion is that even the committed voters of the BSP did not follow Mayawati’s directives to press NOTA, preferring to participate in the elections. Has the time come to give NOTA a legal sanctity as today it has no consequence on the election results?
Ten years of NOTA
It was in 2009 when NOTA was provided as an option to the voters. It was challenged in the Supreme Court, which in its September 2013 order, directed the Election Commission to make provisions in the ballot papers/ EVMs for the people to exercise their right not to vote. The court hoped that “it would go a long way in cleansing the political system, bring in systematic changes.”
After the apex court’s orders, NOTA was first introduced in 2013 in the state assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. But by then the vociferous demand for NOTA, spiked by a terror strike in Mumbai in 2008, had subsided.
The result was that only a few opted for NOTA. Only 401,058 (3.1% of total votes polled) pressed the NOTA button in Chhattisgarh, 589,929 (1.9%) in Rajasthan and 643,171 (1.90%) in Madhya Pradesh. Even in Delhi, where Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal had taken the lead in demanding the Right to Reject, only 49,774 (1.90%) preferred NOTA to political parties in 2013.
It later gained some popularity, which was noticed in the assembly elections in Gujarat in 2017 and Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2018. For instance, in Gujarat, as many as 551,515 pressed the NOTA button accounting for 1.9% of the total electorate. It was more than the votes polled in favour of the new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party (24,918) and the third national party in the country, the BSP (2,07,007) in the fray.
In Rajasthan, it was NOTA that played spoilsport in 15 of the 200 assembly constituencies as the NOTA votes polled were more than the victory margin. For instance, former health minister Kalicharan Saraf lost to the Congress nominee by merely 1,704 votes from the Malviyanagar seat. The NOTA tally there was 2,371. It was a neck-and-neck contest between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress polled 39.3% votes and won 99 seats — one short of the majority mark — but formed the government with the help of Independents. The BJP polled 38.8% votes, 0.5% less than the Congress and won 73 seats. NOTA accounted for 1.3% votes.
In other words, NOTA can make a difference provided people use it as a tool.
Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi said, “People have used NOTA and the option had the fourth largest share in many constituencies in various elections over the years. To mention a few in Gujarat in the 2017 assembly elections it ended fourth. In Chhattisgarh, it ended fifth in the 2018 assembly elections. But yes it has been ineffective in generating moral pressure on political parties to not field criminals or tainted candidates, as envisaged by the court. Perhaps, the courts can revisit the option and give it a legal sanctity in the form of the right to reject so that the provision reaches a logical conclusion."
It may be recalled that the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai had triggered widespread public outrage and led to a demand for a constitutional right to reject or recall candidates. Questions were then raised if the time was actually ripe for giving the people the constitutional right to reject candidates contesting election or recall those who have been elected.
From film stars to activists, all had supported the call as noted film director Vipul Shah had then said, as widely reported by media, “In a democratic set-up, this is the only way people can make the politicians accountable. They celebrate their victory with 30% votes.”
Petitions were sent to the Election Commission which had earlier sent proposals to the government in 2001 and 2004 to enable a voter to reject all the candidates in the constituency if he does not find them suitable. Even the then Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee in 2004 had publicly supported the demand for the right to reject or recall.
Rajnath Singh, who is now the country’s defence minister, had opposed it while addressing a political conclave in Lucknow in 2011. “I personally feel that the first past the post electoral system should be replaced with a system wherein only a candidate who secures over 50% of the total votes polled is declared the winner,” he had said. He had also demanded a curb on the mushrooming growth of political parties. On the right to recall and reject, he had said, “They are not possible in a big country like India.”
Going by the progress made so far, he may be right for the simple reason that the voters are not even aware of their right to reject in the rural or even semi-urban areas.
Even in Maharashtra which saw a public outrage, only 4,83,459 (0.91%) of the voters had used the option in the 2014 elections.
According to an analysis done by the Association for Democratic Reforms and Election Watch on the use of NOTA between 2018 and 2019, only 12,977,627 (1.29 crore) voters had selected the option in the Lok Sabha and state elections held during the period.
In the state assembly elections, 64,53,652 had pressed the NOTA button whereas in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, only 1.06% of the voters — 6,523,975 opted for it.
Some voters, when contacted, said that they waste their vote as NOTA is not counted as candidates with as less as 30% votes get elected.
Here, the ADR had recommended making NOTA effective: “If NOTA gets more votes, then none of the candidates should be declared elected and in subsequent elections not allowed to contest from the seat. In the following election, a candidate getting 50 percent+1 should be elected and the process repeated if not achieved.
Politicians dismiss NOTA as too ambitious and impractical entailing huge expenses.
In other words, the political parties reject it, and voters don’t accept it but the right that empowers the voter will continue to exist in the hope of bringing changes in years to come.
Manohar Yadav, who closely watches the country's electoral system, said, “The logic behind NOTA was to compel political parties to field clean image candidates. But in their quest to field winnable candidates, they continue to select candidates on the basis of their caste and resources. As it has failed to serve its purpose NOTA in its present form should be scrapped. It neither affects the outcome of a poll, even if it registers a higher number than the winning candidate nor it is serving the intended purpose. Besides even SC has scrapped NOTA for Rajya Sabha polls."
Professor Trilochan Shastry of ADR feels the Election Commission needs to create more awareness about NOTA.
SY Quraishi referring to his meeting with social activist Anna Hazare in mid-2010 said, "I was CEC when he met me. I rejected his demand for the Right to Recall but saw some logic in the Right to Reject as the fear that it will impose multiple elections will be transient as pressure would mount on parties not to field tainted candidates."
Perhaps the time has come to debate this further.
From her perch in Lucknow, HT’s resident editor Sunita Aron highlights important issues related to Uttar Pradesh